Paddy McAloon took his band Prefab Sprout from nowhere to the Top 10 – then back again. For five years not a squeak’s been heard from him. Now it’s comeback time, he tells Phil Daoust. Cue fanfare…
‘Paddy McAloon used to be big. Now he’s really big.’ Prefab Sprout’s singer -songwriter has even put on a big voice to talk about himself. But although he’s about to release his first album for five years, he’s not trying to talk up his chances of a comeback. For the past quarter of an hour, he’s been joking that the photographs we’re taking will make him look horribly bloated.
He’d been shocked by a Polaroid a few weeks before. ‘I looked like my head had been filled with helium, my hair was all over the place and I had 12 chins,’ he says, hair flopping wildly. ‘I can do that,’ threatens the Guardian’s photographer. McAloon laughs. ‘I bet you can. But I know where you live.’ There are more quips about his chins, an avalanche of sniggering and the wistful, truthful remark: ‘I was such a slight thing once upon a time.’ Finally, we promise we’ll retouch the photos to make him look really beautiful.
This is the sort of thing a pop star has to worry about after half a decade out of the limelight. That and the fact that everyone who interviews you will be asking, ‘Have you been sitting on your arse all this time, or what?’ So let’s get that out of the way first. ‘The five years are easily accounted for,’ McAloon says. After A Life Of Surprises, 1992’s ‘best of’ collection, he got lost in Let’s Change The World With Music, an album vaguely inspired by the Gulf war, which he has since abandoned. Then there was what he calls ‘the big project’ – Earth: The Story So Far, a concept album to end all concept albums, the history of humanity since the Garden of Eden. ‘You’ve got to see this,’ he says, beckoning us into his office. There, to give some idea of the scale of the thing, he points to a long shelf of computer discs containing music from the album, then goes to a cabinet and pulls out 20 or so files of lyrics.
Earth has been, at various times, a 20-minute piece, a traditional four-minute track, and an ‘unwieldy’ collection of songs. Briefly that afternoon, for an audience of two, it becomes a solo for voice and piano. One day, when he’s arranged it – one of the skills he’s been working on since he dropped out of sight – it will be a CD. The record company, he says, ‘loves the idea’.
In the meantime, to pay the bills, he’s written songs for Cher and Jimmy Nail, and composed and sung the theme tune for the new TV series Where The Heart Is. The rest of the band have had to fend for themselves. His former girlfriend Wendy Smith (harmonising vocals) and his younger brother Martin (bass guitar) have both turned to teaching. ‘It’s hard sometimes for the two of them,’ McAloon says. But at least they’re still with the band; Neil Conti (drums) has left altogether.
Thirty-nine-year-old McAloon is famously hard-working, but he’s not one of those songwriters who slap down the tracks and move on; he goes back, reworks them, maybe chops them up and splices them with bits of other songs. Whole albums just disappear. It seems a miracle six of them made it into the shops.
‘The Sound Of Crying shows how far a lyric can move from its original setting,’ he says. That song, released in 1992, asked why God allows suffering – the sort of question that sticks when, like McAloon, you get seven years of your education at the hands of priests. ‘Hang out the flags, a new world order’s on the way. /Start singing now a song to greet the joyful day/Just when we thought/The time was right for celebrating/ With music of the spheres/What’s this? Another boat of fleeing refugees on/A sea of children’s tears.’ Then comes the chorus: ‘Once more the sound of crying/Is number one across the world.’ ‘The original chorus,’ he says, ‘was something like, ‘Only the boogie music/Will never, ever let you down.’ ‘ And the song was about Michael Jackson. ‘That’s just how it is. You spew it out and then you start editing it into shape.’ We are at Andromeda Heights, McAloon’s bijou new recording studio – a room stuffed to knocking -over point with keyboards, a mixing desk, enough cable to span the Atlantic, an acoustic guitar, a Yamaha grand piano and, for some reason that is never explained, a plastic policeman’s helmet. Here, at the top of an hill near Newcastle, he’s been swilling tea from his Nasa souvenir mug, watching the comet Hale-Bopp, and putting together 12 songs that suggest something of an obsession with stars. It too is called Andromeda Heights, and it’s actually got a launch date.
Later this month, the track Prisoner Of The Past will be released as a single (backed in some versions with Where The Heart Is). Columbia has rather bizarrely chosen to test the water with what McAloon calls a revenge song, a stalker’s threat to the intended victim. But Prisoner is beautiful and seductive in a horrible kind of way, not least because it’s an unashamed homage to Phil Spector.
The trip to Andromeda Heights was something of a pilgrimage for me, as it would be for any number of thirtysomething men. Prefab’s first album, Swoon, came out in 1984, around the time we were making the switch from childhood mistakes to adult ones. Fall for women, split up with women, snivel over women: we did it all to Prefab Sprout. Other groups sang love songs, they sang songs about love. How did we screw up? Paddy and Co counted the ways.
He’d play the sex-war casualty, say: ‘Should a love be tender, and bleed out loud/Or be tougher than tough, and prouder than proud?/If I’m troubled by every folding of your skirt/Am I guilty of every male-inflicted hurt?’ (from Cruel); or the repentant shagger – ‘I was the fool who always presumed that/I’d wear the shoes and you’d be the doormat’ (Horsin’ Around). He’d even remind us – the ultimate crime against romance – that passion has a lifespan: ‘You and I won’t lose our heads the way some lovers do /Saying ‘This will last for ever’ when it’s just a year or two/You and I won’t be the fools that other lovers are/Thinking every silver bottle-top potentially a star’ (All The World Loves Lovers).
If you just wanted multi-layered music or belting pop tunes, you got them, too, and all coated with more glitterball spangle than Barry Manilow mid-‘Copacabaaaaana’.
For a while, though, I’d dreaded the trip. When you wait so long for your favourite artist to deliver, you expect something pretty special. And in most of Andromeda Heights, McAloon was giving us lurve, straight, sans arguments, fear of commitment, roving eyes. There was the ‘mystery of love’, the ‘search for love’; love was ‘an avenue of stars’, ‘the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse’, ‘a pure sensation’ . . . Moon, June, spoon. Yuk, yuk, yuk.
And then I listened again. And again. The songs were so damned catchy. And I realised there was still the same intelligence at work; it just wasn’t trying to be flashy.
It was a bit like meeting McAloon himself. At first he seemed a bit bookish, other-worldly; there was even a touch of the Alan Bennetts. Then he had us splitting our sides. ‘So much for the moody recluse shit,’ he’d say, as he tripped over another cable.
The old Prefab Sprout would feed you a phrase, let you swallow it, then – if you really thought about what was being said – jerk you upright. McAloon did it in Hallelujah: ‘I swear at you because I believe/That sweet talk, like candy, rots teeth.’ What a crap excuse, you’d think, pretending it’s for her benefit; then, hold on – it’s not even her teeth he’s worried about. It worked with the most banal expressions. ‘My love and I,’ he began When Love Breaks Down, ‘we work well together’; then, as soon as you go ‘Aaah! Sweet!’, the bugger hits you with, ‘But often we’re apart.’ You thought he was praising a relationship; in fact, he’s pointing out its limitations.
There’s the same wit in Andromeda Heights, sometimes in the words, as often in the music or the delivery. But, more than before, it’s up to the listener to pick up on it.
‘It ties in with the notion that your lyrics can be too ‘Look at me, I’m a big lyric!’ ‘ is how he puts it. ‘You take an ordinary phrase and you ally it with . . . well, the music is the thing that makes the phrase sing. You can take the most banal phrases and they work because of the spin that you put on them.
‘More and more, I will shy away from the things that exclude people, things that in the past I would have justified as adding texture.’ So out go the ‘tuppentups’ and the Graham Greene references. ‘New Musical Express once said about Steely Dan, ‘There are too many horses’ heads in the bed in their lyrics.’ I didn’t understand it at the time, but later I thought, ‘Could that be applied to the way I write?’ I don’t want the lyrics to be invisible. But a song has to have a fair measure of the ordinary.’ At the same time, McAloon’s stripped down his music – ‘In the past I have been too expansive’ – yet somehow he wrings just as much from his songs. It’s perhaps not what he does, but when he stops doing it. He has a poet’s or actor’s grasp of the value of the pause, however brief.
So Electric Guitars, which opens the new album, begins after a bright, deliberately traditional guitar intro: ‘I’d a dream that . . . we were rock stars/And that . . . flash bulbs popped the air/And girls fainted every time we shook our hair/We were songbirds, we were Greek gods/We were . . . singled out by fate . . .’ And those little delays give the song time to breathe and you a chance to reflect, and you know it’s all tongue in cheek, even before the next, killer line: ‘We were quoted out of context – it was great.’ And if you’re still put off by the 32 mentions of the L-word, ‘I even think that the love songs are not love songs at all,’ he says. ‘They’re about something else, a yearning.’ The love sought ‘on street after street, in bar after bar’ in the track Whoever You Are, for example, could be any kind – a good woman’s, brotherly, even God’s, since you’re never far from the spiritual with McAloon.
‘It’s one of those songs where I think I’ve removed my personality from the writing,’ he says with an air of satisfaction. ‘There’s no signpost that says, ‘Yoo-hoo! I’m the writer here!’ ‘ He waves frantically, then, for the hundredth time, breaks into laughter.
You wouldn’t find most pop stars celebrating their shrinking presence, but that’s Paddy McAloon for you. Now, if he can just convince the camera . . .